“Slurp…that’s good pizza,” said the man. It wasn’t the first time. He sat at the table opposite us, with short-cropped gray hair and thick frame glasses, patting his wide belly with deliberate satisfaction. He grinned at us without a hint of self-consciousness. “I like pizza,” he repeated, shaking his head and body a little too vigorously for polite society. Everybody likes pizza. He slurred his syllables too, ending with a peculiar enthusiasm on the final -za.
Steven smiled at me. “Why does he keep saying that?” he asked. A shy look of amusement spread across his seven-year-old face, as if he wasn’t sure if he should say anything or not. Steven, my daughter Agnes and I had just gone ice-skating to celebrate the close of our fall semester. A small event for a tiny school. My ex-wife, Megan, had arrived only moments ago with hot cider and now the four of us were eating lunch at a tall table in the middle of the rec center. I shrugged. “He likes pizza, I guess.” Agnes giggled. I couldn’t help smiling.
I had noticed the group when we had come in to take our skates off. The middle of a school day, there weren’t many folks present anywhere – the rink, the pool, the game room, the playground. As the kids vocalized their relief at having their tight skates taken off, a group of about ten adults walked in the door. Being socially awkward, I made no attempt at eye contact, but kept them in my periphery. They said a handful of hellos to the staff, one who was behind the skate rental counter, another who was needlessly sweeping the floor. Clearly, they had all been here before. Don’t go to the tables, I thought, those are our tables.
They went to the tables. They had all brought bagged lunches, and as I hurried to untie my own skates I watched as they spread out over the three tables with comfy booths and two of the café tables. That left only one for us, a tall table with thin-legged chairs meant to look interesting and feel miserable. The nerve.
“Agnes, Steven – grab your backpacks,” I said. I stuffed my arms with jackets, hats, gloves and skates. As we made our way to the table, Allison, my ex-wife, walked in the door with a thermos of hot cider and a bouquet of flowers. Damn.
“Congratulations!” she shouted. Into the room that was almost deaf with silence. Like any sane person, I pretended not to notice. For a second, I even thought about acting like she might be talking to someone else. But I could see from the bright smile on her face that that was impossible, so I accepted her show of love with the weak-willed sort of tepidity I’m famous for. In front of everyone.
“Oh, thanks…” I said, hoping not to sound as awful as I felt. Flowers? For me? And right here in front of all these strangers. How…noticeable.
“Congratulations,” the woman at the next table said. She appeared to be in her late forties, with curly black hair and a thick winter jacket that went down to her calves. Her eyes were bright and her teeth, which were a little imperfect, betrayed the sincerest of emotions. By now, I had picked up on the fact that these men and women were disabled, meaning they were delightful, free, fat, and skinny - and here this woman even had on the same winter jacket my sister used to wear and looked like it never came off. Fuckers.
There’s a reason I like writing so much. Or telling stories. I don’t mind being the center of attention so long as there is a role to play, but there are few things I detest more than being admired to my face. At a party, I usually wash the dishes, which not only gives me something to do but keeps my back towards anyone trying to talk to me.
“Thank you,” I said to the woman, smiling awkwardly. I was trying hard not to ruin everyone’s day by drawing attention to the fact that they were so beautiful. Fact is, I love pretty much everyone and I can’t bear to expose that fact too recklessly. I’m a tough dude, doing tough and smart stuff. I don’t have time for this shit.
As a child, I often accompanied my mother to Broadfield Manor, an old stone building which served as a castle for disabled men and women. At that time, there was still a moat and a drawbridge and it was perfectly appropriate to call the prisoners retarded. My aunt lived there. I never knew her as a fully “with it” person, but the way my mother tells it she sounds pretty wild. At the age of eighteen, she went on the road with a group of bikers and got into an accident. For almost a year, she was in a hospital far from home till eventually my mother and her father (her mother had passed some years before) managed to bring her back. Since then, she has had a hard time walking and has severe cognitive failure.
What I do remember about my aunt is how joyful she was. Is. Miserable too, no doubt. Broadfield Manor was exactly the kind of place no one wanted to be, just like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or that kind of thing. But my aunt had something that no one else did, and so did a lot of people there. She was genuine.
It would be insincere to pretend that I enjoyed her company, or that I liked my visits to Broadfield, but those times were like nothing else. I was uncomfortable, always. If given a hair of an excuse, I would not have gone. But our visits, and aunt Linda’s visits to our house, gave me something that I would not have otherwise had: empathy. No, wait. It gave me something more.
By most measures, I’m a capable and bright human being, but it is excruciating how impotent I can be at times. Moments like those at the rec center leave me wishing I was invisible. I don’t know how to balance my role as a teacher, a parent, an ex-husband, a stranger, an ice-skater and a lunch-eater. I get stuck between it all and wish everyone would just leave me alone.
What I’m trying to say is that my aunt, and people like her, show me what freedom is. They show me what life is like when you’re not being someone. It’s beautiful. It’s rather hellish. We don’t look pretty. We have bad teeth. Sometimes, we get wheeled outside so we can smoke in our wheelchairs. Why not? There’s something so liberating about being with those people. It breaks the sky in half.
When I look a normal person in the eye it’s as if I’m incapable of relaxing. I know that sounds crazy, but that’s honestly how it feels. I’ve lived enough years to realize that it’s not their fault, just some mental backwash that’s filling inside my own head, but that doesn’t change the way it feels. Instantly, effortlessly, I reproduce this veneer of normalcy, my brand of personality, in order to live up to what I think this eyeball expects of me. It’s all in my head, sure, it has nothing to do with anyone else, but…there it is.
I’ve learned that this veneer isn’t actually me, but I have not learned how to scrub it off. These people have. They’re not perfect. They’re full of their own problems and difficulties, and sure, it’s not every disabled person in the world. I don’t mean to whitewash what is surely a difficult life at times. But there is something about the presence of someone with this ability to make me feel like a big fat faker. In a nice kind of way.
I don’t have a hard time walking or getting things off a shelf, like my aunt does. And I don’t have a hard time empathizing with children, rec center staff, disabled adults, myself, my ex-wife, or a blowup Christmas tree. I’m kind of in tune with all of it. Maybe not. Maybe there’s lots that I’m still missing, but sitting at an uncomfortably high table with my daughter, my student, and a roomful of adults with various priorities and abilities – this is excruciating to me. I feel bombarded by clean and crisp awareness. Sensation. All this information just buzzing through me. And here I am trying to be the person for it all.
Anyway, point is, here we are in the rec center, bodies warm from skating, greeted by my ex-wife, Agnes’s mother, surrounded by the warmness and discomfort of human beings who at various points in history have been called idiots, morons, retards, etc., and everybody, I mean everybody, is more comfortable than I am. For much of my life, I’ve been able to make mental leaps over other people, but who’s the retard here? It’s me.
“Slurp…that’s good piz-za.”
Steven laughed. There wasn’t an ounce of ridicule in his expression. It was just funny to him. Dude likes his pizza. We all like pizza. Isn’t that wonderful?
Finally, the man stood up and introduced himself, thrusting his hand over the table with almost comic sincerity. What a joy. What a beautiful hand. What a fat little pizza tummy.
Having introduced himself properly, Adam walked over to the pool table, where another disabled man, a bit younger, a bit browner, but with a belly just as round and pleasant, smacked his hands in excitement. The young man who was one of their caretakers looked at us and smiled shyly. As if they were the problem. I’m the problem!
He turned and put four quarters into the slot. Ka-ching! Rumble, rumble, rumble, rumble… Who doesn’t love that sound? I don’t care if you’re in Mensa or a mental institution, or if you’ve never played a game of pool in your life – fifteen fresh clacking balls rolling across a felt table. Everybody wins.
My sister was born with several deformities. Considerably older than I, she was the product of a different father and when my mother died unexpectedly after my first birthday, my sister, and our oldest sister, went to live with their father. For reasons good and ill, my sisters and I didn’t see each other much throughout childhood. Fact is, after my mother died, I probably saw my sister less than ten times, most of which weren’t very memorable for me. I do, however, remember the last time I saw her. It was at my parent’s house when I was in my late twenties. She was a bit aloof with me at first, which was fine. I didn’t want to push her. Then someone explained to her that I was Joey.
It’s hard to explain how an adequate young man reacts to an older sister he hardly knew who has troubling disabilities. Poorly, you might say. She, however, had a tender place in her heart for her little baby brother. She could have held me all night. This was the kind of love that poured out so effortlessly from her.
A year or so later, my sister died. I lived far away at the time and had little money. Besides, I was busy. I came up with some excuse not to go to her funeral. Nobody thought ill of me. Looking back, I can’t believe how callous and stupid I was, but there it is. People think I’m the healthy one. Something’s wrong here.
My aunt Linda is still alive. My mother, who’s really my stepmother, will arrange for us to visit when I make it home for a holiday or some such thing. Like a child, I still don’t exactly look forward to visiting her, but I have a place in my heart for my aunt Linda that I never had the chance to create for my sister. Or my mother
We finished lunch at the rec center. As we stood up to say goodbye to Allison, her partner Glen walked in the door. I love this shit. Glen is a wonderful man and I’m glad to call him a friend. He’s a great surrogate father to my daughter when she’s not with me, and a great dad to his own kids too. Life is so complicated. And real. I’m not going to waste my time disliking people.
Allison smiled slyly at me. “This is your work, Joe,” she said. “When you’re done teaching, maybe at the end of eighth grade…this is the next thing. It’s so perfect for you. I can see it. It’s like…you’re home.” I nodded thoughtfully. It’s so pleasant when someone nails you. Glen, you see, manages a ranch for disabled folks about an hour away. “I recognize some of these folks,” he said as he walked up to our table.
I want to recognize everyone.